“Vidocq” (2001)

VidocqA dark and obscure crime movie with elements of science fiction and fantasy explode in a viewer’s face in the form of extraordinary ugliness and beauty simultaneously. This is an amazing picture full of filth, mystery, perversion, and the French Revolution. It starts as surprisingly as it ends. And what comes along the way is a visual experience worth watching.

The beginning is the end. It starts with the detective Vidocq’s (Gérard Depardieu) death in the (hell) fire. At first, it seems Vidocq loses his duel against his most powerful enemy, the Alchemist. The detective dies, and the murderer is at large. However, nothing is as simple as that in this movie. The story is based on two parallel investigations: Vidocq’s pursuit after the Alchemist, and Etienne’s (Guillaume Canet) attempts at finishing the detective’s official biography. I like the way the movie manipulates with the viewer’s perception – we never know what happens now, and what is only a flashback of Vidocq’s recent past. There is no transition between one and the other. Scenes seem to overlap before we even notice that.

Throughout the movie we meet many characters, some of them odd, some repulsive, but none of them really innocent. At some point, the two investigations become one – to find out who the Alchemist is. All of the characters are involved in the case, some of them by being the Alchemist’s victims, others by helping him. The way they are portrayed is unpleasant and disgusting. They cannot be liked. Even Vidocq himself is not a person you like. His detective skills are undoubtedly exceptional; however, he’s not a pure and innocent man in terms of morality. There’s no room for innocence and goodness in the Revolution-driven reality.

The plot develops quite dynamically, and is very absorbing to the end. One step of the investigation takes us to a new place and a new character. I both like and despise the dirty and corrupt locations Vidocq (and later Etienne) visited. It seems they have to go thru hell, literally as well as figuratively, to get to the truth. Interestingly enough, it makes me thinking how much it must affect a person to see and experience all those horrible things. Once you see all the filth and depravity, you lose your innocence.

As for the characters, they’re not likeable either. They seem to be their own caricatures. Their features and vices are exaggerated. Again, there’s no room for innocence, or pity, for that matter. Violence committed on them doesn’t move me. I’m not emotionally attached to them ‘cause I can’t identify with any of them. Would you pity a tormentor if you saw how he was punished in hell?

The movie’s visual side is extremely important to the understanding of the story. Not only does it create an atmosphere of crime, depravity, and chaos, but also is the key to the mystery. The photography is unbelievably realistic and crude. Yet, it’s exaggerated in the crudeness, as well. There are a lot of close-ups to the point where the reality is distorted. The face close-ups deform faces, and evoke repellent feelings. Everything is crooked. The moral perverseness, realized by multiple Dutch angles, is expressed by crooked, distorted images. Then, the colors also create a sense of filth: copper brown, shades of grey, black and dark blue. There’s no room for cheerfulness of pastel colors. This mixture of techniques and colors is simply brilliant.

There is an important symbolic aspect in the movie. Everybody is obsessed with the eternal youth and physical beauty. Ironically, in order to preserve it, they must break both human and God’s laws. To become beautiful, they must destroy the beauty and pureness. The beauty of the body seems to be contrasted with the filth of the soul. The only person who can deliver that is the Alchemist – a mysterious, mythological persona. The Alchemist wears a glass mask, in which every victim sees his/her true image (the dark part of the person’s soul). The most fascinating aspect about the Alchemist is that we never know whether he (let’s call him he) is a woman, or a man. For me, he is asexual to some extent. It may be both, or none. The Alchemist doesn’t have a name; he’s sex is not defined; his face reveals the worst part of one’s soul; he doesn’t have any reservations to committing the most vile crime – it all makes me come to a conclusion he’s the impersonation of the evil, or even Satan himself.

As far as the ending is concerned, I think it’s great. It’s surprising since I didn’t suspect such turn of events. The fact that Vidocq faked his own death was quite obvious, but the truth about the Alchemist’s identity made my jaw drop. I suspected almost all characters. Yet, the only one I didn’t suspect turned out to be the cruel Alchemist. The allegedly young and innocent journalist Etienne was in fact a ruthless, evil murderer. I was tricked by his ingenuous countenance. However, Vidocq doesn’t let himself be tricked. Instead, he outsmarts the Alchemist. I like the fact the lives of Vidocq and the Alchemist intermingle. Vidocq exchanges letter with his biographer, who’s, at the same time, the brutal murderer the detective tries to catch. Thus, the Alchemist can be as close to the investigations as he pleases. Keep your friends close, and enemies even closer.

“Vidocq” is a cinematic experience I enjoyed thoroughly. It can be characterized as dirty, depressing, and dismal. The photography is astonishing. The characters are expressive. The plot is engrossing, and, yes, unpredictable. And in the background we have the chaos of the Revolution. I rarely watch French movies, but this one is a production you can’t miss.

Long days, pleasant nights,

Veronica Bazydlo

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